The ink black mass at the bottom of the mug is completely solid:
“Has there been anyone in this place since it closed?”
I try to catch Lin’s eye, but she is just sitting there – on the big kitchen desk, pondering unknowns.
“I … have come here sometimes. When I needed to go somewhere quiet. Mostly to get away from my parents.”
Now I don’t try to catch her eye anymore.
“You think it’s creepy,” she says. Not a question.
“Well, no, but you have to admit – coming back to moonlight at your old ‘kindergarten’, turned into ghost house, is, well – “
“Yeah. It is.” Lin lets her fingers strafe gently across the kitchen desk. They go gray immediately, from the thick layer of dust. “Guess I just wanted you to see
“Okay. The, ah, cupboard doors are nice … they almost look handmade – with patterns and all.”
“They are handmade. I believe they are copies of the original cabinet doors from the 1800s. Everything in the mansion has been restored.”
“It wasn’t actually the kitchen, I wanted you to see.”
I swallow. It wasn’t the coffee but it sure feels like it: “Okay then, ready to boldly go where no woman has gone before, Mr. Spock.”
I turn for the large double door, which apparently leads out of the kitchen. But Lin holds her hand up:
“Nothing to see in there but armchairs covered by white sheets and cobwebs.”
” – But since we have broken into the ‘haunted house’, why not go all the way? ” I have my hand on the handle.
I don’t want to look like a complete coward but I sure wish we’d go back to Columbus soon. We were supposed to check on Deborah and now we’re looking for Norman Bates out in Chagrin Falls.
“Miss Super Lawyer,” Lin says, wry smile and all. “You see crimes everywhere. “
“Shut up. I’m barely through the first third of the long and weary road to my bar X.”
“Sorry …” Lin says quietly. “Maybe I couldn’t decide myself what I wanted. But now I have.”
Lin slides down from the desk and walks over to a small door in the opposite corner of the kitchen, between two large cupboards. I hadn’t even noticed that it was a door. But now I do. And it looks like there is a staircase inside the darkness.
“Uh … is there no light down there?”
“Just as much as here, when you pull away the curtains. No electricity, of course. “
“Are we going into the basement?”
“With its basement windows, yes. I didn’t think Captains were afraid of anything?”
I roll my eyes at her. Then I march past her and begin walking the cliché of a creaking staircase. I have to wipe my face with my sleeve almost the whole way down, while a thousand cobwebs try to steal a kiss from me.
Lin follows right after.
We end up in a basement room with curtain-less windows looking out into the empty garden. The pale autumn light is mostly lost in the thick greasy dust, covering the windows, but there is still light enough to clearly reveal a bed, a table with chairs and two shelves without any significant amount of books.
On the wall: A faded poster of Johnny Cash in San Quentin.
A room with more order than items; where you know it is a sin to move anything.
“Janitor’s room,” says Lin. She sits gently down on the bed, which is only covered by a single, tight sheet.
“I find it hard to imagine a janitor in such a neat little place – even if it is in the basement,” I quickly add (and wonder what the hell I meant by that).
“We called him the janitor. He had shown a different title. And someone has keep such a big house going,” she added. “It’s like a ship. It needs a guy to take care of the engine.”
“Lin … why are we here?”
Lin pulls up her legs beneath her on the bed.
I am still standing, not quite sure if I should sit down beside her. She is my best friend. I should.
I keep standing.
“When I was a little girl,” says Lin quietly, “my parents felt that I kept too much to myself – I isolated myself. Like a female Robinson Crusoe or something. I would stay for days, and almost not get out of my room during vacations.”
“That was a problem for them? Your dad who was always on business trips and your mum who was always at some conference? They had Mick to look after you.”
“It wasn’t the isolation that was a problem in itself. But I was also often depressed …. Sometimes angry, sad – without knowing why. Couldn’t explain it. “
I finally sit down, but there’s still an arm’s length between us. The bed creaks a little, like we’re in a bad movie. I fold my hands in my lap and look at her, waiting:
She pauses, and something glistens in her eyes: “Yes, I was damn well not normal – but when I was little …” she tries, then her voice fades.
“I was really … I had some real problems, Carrie.” She looks directly at me. “But no one knew what it was about. I certainly didn’t. However, my mom was a big fan of Goddard’s ideas about pedagogy that could help children with ‘special challenges’. So she and my father agreed that I should attend here, before they dared to send me to school.
“… How was it?”
“It was okay … but there were not many of the other girls I felt I could talk to, or adults for that matter. Except Uriah. “
“He scared me silly.” Lin smiles weakly. “Half of his face was scarred from burns. He kept much to himself. But he had to go look after the garden and paint and repair and such. So it was impossible not to notice him sooner or later, although he would certainly try to avoid us. “
“But why did he live here?”
“He had nowhere else to live.”
Lin stares at a small photo frame on the bookshelf. The photo is in black and white and depicts a young, athletic looking man in full firefighter uniform. He leans almost nonchalantly up against a fire engine. I can see the flash from the camera sparkle in the polished hood. The young firefighter is ready to save the world.
“Uriah Shannon helped put out a lot of fires in the Cuyahoga in the sixties,” Lin continues softly. “There was always someone who had forgotten that the river was more oil than water and dropped a cigarette in it. It must have been quite a sight for tourists – a burning river. One of the fires took nearly a day to get under control. Something went wrong. Uriah must have slipped at one point, for he fell straight down into the inferno. They thought he was dead, but when they pulled him up he was still alive… barely. Perhaps it would have been better for him if he hadn’t been.”
I try to breathe normally, as I look at the photo. Life can’t be that cruel, can it?
I should know the answer to that.
After having been silent a few seconds, Lin says:
“… Uriah was burned on nearly half of the face – and who knows how much more of the rest of the body. He could, for good reasons, not be a firefighter anymore. He could apparently not be anything else anymore, maybe because nobody would hire him because of his face. He started drinking, was repeatedly arrested for fights, got into debt, and was eventually evicted from his apartment because he couldn’t pay rent. Catherine – our principal – was evidently sorry for him. He was her cousin. She offered him a kind of job and a place to be. He had to be a kind of caretaker in the Yeardley House.”
“So finally someone could use him?”
“I think the other teachers didn’t like the idea,” says Lin, and looks as if she is still far away, in another time. “Perhaps they were nervous about what us kids would say to have a man who looked like that, in the house. Or perhaps it was the booze and the trips to jail.”
“Maybe some of it’s just my imagination.” Lin shakes her head, motions to get up. “I was only a girl. Maybe I mix things up … memories.” She looks down.
“It does not matter,” I say, and get up, too. I touch her shoulder: “So you were scared of him?”
“Yup. Until one day. I think it was a November day -” Lin smiles, all too briefly “- I had had enough of it all. I had decided to run away. I snuck around by the hedge where we came into the grounds, because I knew there was a hole in the hedge, and in the fence it grew alongside.”
“You ran away?”
“Didn’t make it. But it was not one of the teachers who caught me.”
“Yes, I thought he would beat the crap out me. They said he hit children. They said the principal sent children to him, because the other teachers were forbidden to hit children. But he took me by hand and took me into the yard behind the kitchen and closed the door to the rest of the garden. Then he sat down, looked me straight in the eye. I could see every scar on his face and was petrified. Most of the others were away on some trip. Those who remained were in the other end of the house. For once, I hoped that some of them would come and find me, but I knew that that was unlikely. I was also afraid that if they came, he would tell them what I had tried to do.”
“But you had only looked at the hedge, right?”
“Okay, maybe not exactly … I actually found a place, a kind of hole – not far from
where we came in, and so I tried … you know … to get through.”
” … Escape from Alcatraz.” I squeeze her shoulder slightly, but it’s like she doesn’t notice it. She doesn’t look at me at any time while she tells me this. We’re here, in this little dark, damp room full of cobwebs and frozen memories.
“I was actually almost out on the other side …” she muses, with a grim smile, and then begins to head for the stairs. I slug along, trying not to give in to my urge to overtake her. I wouldn’t able to on the narrow stairway, but I would like to. I’m glad we leave now. Damn glad.
“I almost wet my panties, when I felt his arm grab me from the other side – ” she looks back at me, midstairs, as if this is of extreme importance ” – the hedge was thinner then.” I nod. We walk up. Into the kitchen. Out the kitchen. Into the empty yard.
“And one minute later I sat here – in ‘his’ yard.”
She looks back at the mansion, then her gaze drops to the dusty basement window – the one in Uriah’s room. It is impossible to see through the dust and the dark, and somewhere behind the mansion the sun is setting in dense, sombre clouds. Distant traffic drones on, behind the neighboring houses, but much weaker since we went in.
Her eyes narrow: “I wonder why he didn’t take this stuff with him when he left?”
“Maybe he could no longer bear to be reminded of the past?” I suggest.
Lin shakes her head then begins to look for the hole we crawled through to get here. The place some zealous judge might lecture at length about, if we were to be caught ‘breaking and entering’ a property closed down for ages, by some powerful heirs of Catherine Duval, ex-principal, who don’t know what to do with the house, who may even have forgotten it, who have faceless attorneys to nitpick such things.
But we’re alone here. No one will catch us.
It’s as if Lin remembers that she broke off her story: “We sat on his patio and I was ready to die. But after what felt like three hours, he simply said:
‘Would ya like ta tell me why ya wanna go through the ‘edge, Adeline?'”
“I could have come with all sorts of lame excuses. I was only five years old. It is natural that children climb into strange places, isn’t it? But he knew that I had tried to run away and I knew that he knew it. But he was staring at me until I got a strange feeling that I was no longer afraid of the scars – perhaps because I now had been looking at them in for what felt like a long time. It was as if I knew them.”
Lin looks back towards the mansion-house one last time, and it looks like there’s something pulling at her, like she wants to go back and lie down on that dusty bed and never get up again. But there’s also another power, a power that has almost pushed her away from the house – without even being able to finish embracing those memories, as if she had to get away before that embrace chokes her.
“I told him … everything,” she finishes and looks at me, at last with some semblance of summer in her eyes:
“I don’t remember exactly what ‘everything’ was. But it was everything that I had never told the other adults, even my mother and father: How sad I was to be there, in the house. I do not know if it was because I was stubborn or frightened or desperate or a little of everything. He sat still and nodded once in a while without saying anything. But I could sense that he listened to everything as if it was the first time that someone told him anything like that … and that maybe it would be the last.”
Her voice becomes intense, as if she’s afraid that I will not listen to her. I nod, try to make it look reassuringly. I couldn’t go anywhere right now.
She picks up the thread, one last time: “I became more and more upset because I felt I couldn’t explain it well enough – how I felt. And finally I cried and cried. So he put his arm around me and waited until I couldn’t cry anymore, and I thought – ‘when will the other grown-ups come?’ But there wasn’t anybody coming around, and finally, he let me go, looked very closely at me said, ‘I ain’t gonna say anything ta Ma’m Duval. But next time ya’ll want ta run away, Adeline, ya run by me me first, ‘kay?'”
Lin suddenly shivers, then stops. As if somebody hit her.
” – I’m babbling. Let’s go back to the car.”
She turns, quickly, and begins to look for the hole in the hedge.
I feel like I’ve dropped something precious on the floor, and I want to pick it up but I have to follow. I don’t want to be alone here.
Even with friendly ghosts.
As Lin drives us out of Cleveland, towards the main highway, and the silent mansion of Catherine Duval and her Goddard-inspired pedagogy has long since disappeared in the rear-view mirror, I catch a last glimpse of the Cuyahoga. In the evening sun it looks almost like it’s still on fire.
Lin has been silent since we left the house. But I have to ask:
” … Did you try run away again?”
Lin shakes her head, and the brightness of the fire that is both in the sun and the river touch her eyes:
“No. Now there was a reason for me to stay.”